By Hassan Daoud, trans. Marilyn Booth
From the author: The characters in ‘One Hundred and Eighty Sunsets’ don’t belong in any way to this place called Zahraniyya where they live. They came to this place, twenty or so miles from Lebanon’s capital city Beirut, fleeing their areas of origin, because of the war, or the wars, and here they are, in houses new to them, houses being built there. All the while, they are building resentment and hatred toward each other as if, in their turn, they are getting ready for their own coming war.
Amongst these characters are Salma, the alluring young woman who shows herself, revealed breasts and all, to the young men; and Taysir, who sells birds and is mentally challenged; and the two brothers who have lived in Zahraniyya for twenty years of indistinguishable days in the shop their father bought for them. The first excerpt below is narrated by the elder of those brothers, and it opens the novel.
Although twenty years have gone by since my arrival in Zahraniyya, where I still live, it’s as though I’ve realised only now that there’s no cemetery here. It dawned on me suddenly, cutting short the unruly flow of thoughts that compete for attention when we’re trying our cunning best to dodge insomnia. That is to say, I had no warning at all, no inkling, no thoughts in my head leading in that direction. I guess it just detached itself from the crowded jumble of fancies and images, coming forward like a passing word, like a sentence some fellow said to me in the course of my day, a string of words I didn’t hear properly at the time and so the phrase hung there, waiting for the right moment to release its full impact on me. When it did, it flipped me over onto my back. I would go to sleep in that position now, and not on my stomach or either side. My eyes were open wide, trying to make out how much light, or darkness, surrounded me in this room.
No one has been buried over there, in that cleft that cuts between the two hills, a steep incline where nobody has yet built a house. Lying in bed, I mused how, if they wanted a cemetery for themselves, they would have made one over there. Or they could have built it here, on this patch of ground separated from the building I live in only by a lane too narrow for me to even park my car. This bit of land is still vacant. It’s been left to itself, no one building his house here either. The sun has scorched the soil so thoroughly that it has left only blackish sand. I often catch myself thinking that the debilitating heat pulsing through me must rise from the warmth it gives off.
It was a woman, my brother told me. When I asked him whether she was someone we had seen alive, he and I, he told me she’d been confined to bed long before we arrived.
My brother was sixteen, that age when finding companions is a matter of urgency. Within a month of our coming here he had already been inside one or two of those houses. He told me that nothing separated those people from the sea unless it was those sharp rocks that made our feet bleed if we walked across them barefoot. But they could see across the rocks to the whole expanse of sea beyond, as he reminded me. ‘The sea, it’s like the sea belongs to them, as if it is an extension to their houses, since no one can walk along between these houses and the sea if it means having to walk on those rocks.’ We could see how blue the water was too — a vast, intense blue — from the wide glass façade of our shop. But when we were at home, above the shop, if we wanted to get a glimpse of the water we had to go to the very end of our balcony, squeezing ourselves into the narrowest part of it.
We couldn’t see the ocean from where we lived over the shop because the other flat, which was also above it, obstructed our view and left nothing to reach us but the salt and the dampness. Not long after our arrival my brother started repeating that they had cut us off from the sea breeze, as he slid his elongated fingers across his forehead to wipe off the sweat. As if it was them, the people who lived in that flat, who were standing between us and the moving air. He hated it that there were so many of them, which made it harder to get everything straight. It took the two of us a long time to figure it all out: who were the full brothers and who were half siblings, and which children were the two sons of the eldest brother, Atif. ‘They came to Zahraniyya before we did’, explained my father on the day we arrived here. He was showing us the shop that would be ours, and the living space above it but on the back side of the building. ‘You can see the ocean from the shop, all day long’, he said. Yes, that’s what he said so long ago, I remember it, but after that, and ever since, we imagined how lovely the view of the sea must be for the people who get to see it from there, from their broad balcony which was half as big as the interior of a flat.
But the ground floor was entirely ours. We didn’t have to share it with anyone. That first time I went through the front door, which my father opened with some keys he carried on him, I assumed that the huge front area made up the entire shop. It was plenty big enough for what we would be doing. When we went deeper inside, I couldn’t imagine what real use my brother and I would ever make of these rooms. Two of them were so enormous that I had never seen such a space behind any door. I did think they resembled the storerooms that old-time merchants used to put up for housing their wares safely. They were high-ceilinged rooms, two floors in height. In each there was only one small window, set very high in the wall and too narrow to cast more than a dim, meagre light across that immense emptiness.
The cement tone of the walls made the place even gloomier. After we moved in I started seeing the walls as heat magnets, like the sand outside that the sun had burnt black. Laying the keys in my hand, my father observed that no doubt my brother and I would paint the walls soon. My brother — who was fearless about speaking his mind in front of our father even though he was younger than me — said that whoever built this place spent all their money on creating outsized rooms. Behind his jocular words he was finding fault with my father’s insistence on keeping us there, letting us know how lucky we were to have these two enormous useless rooms. It was as though he intended to make us understand that he was giving us a shop and a place to live not just so that we could make a living now, but for our entire lives.
Only now, twenty years after we came to live here, it dawns on me that there’s no cemetery here. Still lying in bed, I reason that if I didn’t see this before, if it never crossed my mind, it must be because we take places as they are; accepting them, we engross ourselves in what we find. I started picturing myself as I have been here, moving amongst places but hardly covering any distance since they are so close together, getting out of my car only to climb back in and, the moment I’m behind the wheel, feel it sinking under my weight. And then I sense how cramped and constrained my actions have made me. It’s as though there is nothing more to life than this constant shuttling from place to place, none of them more distant than three minutes’ drive. Even so, I find myself heading for the car every time, preferring the ease of it to the fatigue of walking. But this is what everyone in Zahraniyya does. ‘No one walks here’, I was told once by someone who arrived in this neighbourhood before I did.
That our living space and our workplace were so close by, separated only by a few stairs, helped lighten the burden of insomnia. I could climb out of bed, put on my outdoors clothes, which I’d hung on the window knob or draped over the high-backed chair in my room, and run down to our shop to open it. At night passing cars were rare, but I could keep myself alert and engaged thanks to the strong light flooding from our façade window onto the street. I could entertain myself watching a man climb out of his car merely to ask me what we were selling. Like me, he was eager for distraction. ‘Had he come a long way?’ I would ask, appearing unconcerned about whether he was there to buy something or had come in only to give his legs and feet a rest from sitting for so long in his car. To keep him there longer, sometimes I found myself getting up to rinse yesterday’s residues from the little Turkish coffee pot, telling him that coffee tasted especially good at this hour.
Our shop and the rooms in which we live haven’t changed at all since the day we took the keys from my father, twenty years ago. That is, we never did paint the walls, which no one before us painted either, nor did we enlarge the windows in the two enormous rooms behind the front shop. We didn’t repair any of the damages of time, either. The outside wooden window shutters, onto which direct sunlight fell relentlessly for most of the day, began to splinter and crack, and then the wooden frames began to warp and come apart so that the two shutters no longer closed properly together. The sink, which began to split, we left as it was. We didn’t do anything about the porcelain toilets which showed permanent black rings where the water collected after emptying. In our first year here I said repeatedly to my brother that we must keep our home clean and well-appointed like the homes women manage. That’s the way he wanted our home, too, and that’s why — a few days after we arrived — he bought two lamps made of fancy glass that he placed to either side of his bed, and over it he hung a painting of a woman with long loose hair and bare shoulders playing a small stringed instrument. In that first year he was the one who was always arguing that we must give some thought to the décor in the shop. He was the one who painted the bars that were no wider than the rulers we used at school but went almost all the way up to the ceiling. These, too, remained their original colour, ugly as I see them now, and cheap-looking, as if we hadn’t paid almost half of what my father left us to acquire them.
Sometimes I wonder whether maybe we would have made a better life for ourselves if people hadn’t been the way they were in Zahraniyya. I am thinking of the people living ‘above the road’, where our shop and home sat. If we were to paint our walls a different colour, my brother would say, it would be as though we were pointing accusing fingers at our neighbours whose walls would remain as drab and colourless as ever. He was referring to the inhabitants of the flat next to ours. ‘We might as well be saying to people, “Look how dirty they are”,’ he would say, raising his arms, hands reaching to each side to show me where there’d be colour and where there’d be just a dirty grey. As for the space separating our front doors, we couldn’t have half of it clean and the other half soiled, and we couldn’t put up a wall to separate them halfway.